Dr. Tomi Akinyemiju. Professor

Dept of Population Health Sciences and Duke Cancer Institute. DIRECT Principal Investigator and Mentor



Dr. Akinyemiju is a social and molecular cancer epidemiologist with expertise in epidemiologic methods, translational research, health disparities and global health.  Her research interests focus on identifying the impact of social (such as access to healthcare) and biological factors (such as metabolic dysregulation), on cancer related risk, tumor aggressiveness and survival. She has a specific interest in understanding the causes of cancer disparities among women of African descent in the US and sub-Saharan Africa, given their significantly higher risk of aggressive cancer subtypes relative to other racial groups. Dr. Akinyemiju is also passionate about promoting inclusion and diversity in research, teaching and service, and serves as the Vice-Chair for Inclusion and Diversity at the Duke University Department of Population Health Sciences and as Associate Director for Community Outreach and Engagement at the Duke Cancer Institute.

Dr. Meira Epplein. Professor 

Dept of Population Health Sciences and Duke Cancer Institute. DIRECT Co-Principal Investigator and Mentor


Meira Epplein is a cancer epidemiologist interested in modifiable risk factors in under-served populations, with a focus on the association of infection and cancer. She is a Professor in Population Health Sciences and in Medicine, and currently serves as Co-Leader of the Cancer Risk, Detection, and Interception research program of the Duke Cancer Institute. Dr. Epplein’s research program has centered around the bacteria Helicobacter pylori, a spiral, gram-negative bacterium that infects approximately 50% of the world’s population, and is the leading carcinogenic infectious agent according to the International Agency for Research on Cancer.  Her research seeks to understand the heterogeneity of H. pylori, to determine the most toxigenic forms of the bacteria so to identify the highest risk populations which can then be targeted for antibiotic therapy, which has been shown to be effective for risk reduction. At the same time, she is committed to furthering our understanding of the co-factors involved in both H. pylori-associated disease risk and benefit, as the bacteria has inhabited the stomachs of humans for over 100,000 years, and so very likely also confers certain biological advantages to its hosts.

Dr. Jason Somarelli. Assistant Professor

Dept of Medicine and Duke Cancer Institute. DIRECT Co-Principal Investigator and Mentor


Dr. Somarelli’s research focuses on metastasis, the process by which cancer cells disseminate and colonize throughout the body.  Metastasis is responsible for over 90% of cancer deaths, so we must better understand how cancers metastasize to improve cancer treatments.  He has pioneered the way for our group with his constant enthusiasm, ability to keep the group focused, and his tireless training of undergraduate students, medical students, and graduate students.  Jason’s research focuses on the two major causes of cancer-related deaths: therapy resistance and metastasis. He studies these two critical aspects of cancer progression using the following innovative approaches: 1) patient-derived models, 2) comparative oncology, 3) functional genomics, 4) systems-level modeling, and 5) ecological and evolutionary paradigms.

Program Manager: Sydnee Crankshaw


Sydnee Crankshaw, MPA has worked at Duke for over 23 years within the Population Sciences Programs at DCI.  She has expertise in multi-site research studies, training grants, community outreach, and engagement, recruitment and retention.  Sydnee grew up in Utah and began her career at the Utah Department of Health as a Community Health Educator, where she traveled across the state presenting to businesses, schools, and treatment centers about HIV/AIDS and universal precautions.


2024 DIRECT Fellows

Angel Hailemariam

Angel grew up in Florida and received a Bachelor of Arts in Chemistry and a Bachelor of Arts in Human Health from Emory University. Having witnessed firsthand the disparities in healthcare access and outcomes among underserved populations, she is committed to bridging these gaps through her work as a physician. Angel is driven to pursue a career in medicine with a focus on community health and advocacy. During her free time, Angel finds joy being outdoors and values quality time with her family and friends.

Lukeman Forgah

Lukeman graduated from New York University in May of 2023 with a B.A in Psychology and a minor in Chemistry. Driven by the stark health disparities he observed in both his New York community and his hometown of Accra, Ghana, he plans to pursue a career in medicine with a focus on addressing social determinants of health to improve health outcomes. In his free time he enjoys listening to podcasts, traveling, and weightlifting.




Brandon grew up in Illinois and received a Bachelor of Science in Human Physiology with a Spanish minor at the University of Iowa. He currently plans to pursue a career in medicine and is hoping to serve underrepresented communities. He enjoys exercising, long bike rides, reading Harry Potter, and spending quality time with friends and family.





2023 DIRECT Fellows

Jasmine Wilkerson


Jasmine grew up in Montana and received a Bachelor of Arts in Biology at Oberlin College of Arts and Sciences. She aspires to pursue a medical career as a physician-scientist with an interest in neonatology, cardiovascular health, and global medicine. Jasmine enjoys running, swimming, dancing, learning new languages, and traveling.


Serach Patterson



Serach grew up in North Carolina and received a Bachelor of Science in biology from NC A&T State University. He currently plans to pursue a career in medicine and public health. He hopes to serve communities that are overlooked in health care and research. He enjoys traveling, listening to music and spending time with his dogs.



Valerie Nguyen




Valerie’s family is from Vietnam, but she grew up in Northern Virginia  and received her Bachelors of Science in Biology and Bachelors of Arts in American Studies at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. As a sibling of a childhood cancer patient, Valerie is aspiring to become a physician scientist specializing in pediatric oncology. She aims to transfer science from “bench to bedside” while  addressing health inequalities and unequal outcomes within cancer as well. During her free time she enjoys cooking, painting, going to museums, traveling and spending intentional time with loved ones.

2022 DIRECT Fellows

Veronica Colmenares



Veronica graduated from Emory University with a Bachelor of Science degree in Neuroscience and Behavioral Biology in May 2022. Veronica volunteered as a Spanish Medical Interpreter at Emory. Veronica identifies as Hispanic, and she is a first-generation college student. After completing the DIRECT fellowship, Veronica will begin the MD program at the University of Louisville. Veronica aspires to focus on pediatric oncology.

Fariha Rahman


Fariha received a Bachelor of Science Degree in Public Health, Health Policy and Management, with minors in Biology and Chemistry, from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in May of 2021. She worked as an Access to Care intern for the Urban Ministries of Wake County, and Medical Scribe for the UNC ED Scribe Program. Fariha identifies as Asian American/Asian and is a first-generation American, with her parents emigrating from Bangladesh. She is also a first-generation college graduate. After completing the DIRECT fellowship, Fariha will matriculate into the Master of Science in Population Health Sciences program at Duke University, after which she intends to apply to medical school in order to become a physician researcher focused on improving women’s health outcomes.

Grace Sekaya


Grace graduated from the University of South Alabama in May 2022 with a Bachelor of Arts degree in International Studies (concentration Global Health) and a minor in Chemistry. She served as Student Body President for the University’s Student Government Association, and her honor’s thesis was entitled, Expectant Mothers’ Experiences in the Healthcare System. Grace identifies as African/African-American, is a first-generation immigrant from Togo, and a first-generation college graduate. After completing the DIRECT fellowship, Grace will matriculate into the MD program at the Frederick P. Whiddon College of Medicine at the University of South Alabama. Grace hopes to leverage her MD degree to become a community-focused physician.



2021 DIRECT Fellows

Dea’vion Godfrey


Deávion is a recent graduate from North Carolina Central University with a major in Pharmaceutical Sciences. She has an interest in medicine and public health, and her ultimate goal is to be a physician scientist and work to achieve health equity in minority communities. Deávion identifies as African American and Native American; is a first-generation college graduate; and graduated from an HBCU. Deávion’s primary mentor is Dr. Akinyemiju. After completing the DIRECT fellowship, Deávion spent one year as a Research Assistant at BASF, and is currently at the University of Florida as an MD/PhD student.


Pelumi Olawuni


Pelumi grew up in Ibadan, Nigeria and received his Bachelor of Science in Biology and Neuroscience from UNC Asheville where he investigated a transcriptional gene that is involved in nitric oxide resistance in Staphylococcus aureus. Pelumi is passionate about becoming a physician-scientist with a focus on cancer research and cancer health disparities. Pelumi identifies as African/African American. Pelumi’s primary mentor is Dr. Somarelli. After completing the first year of the DIRECT fellowship, Pelumi spent a second year in Dr. Somarelli’s lab as an Emerson Research Scholar, and was conditionally accepted to the University of South Carolina at Greenville School of Medicine starting in 2024, after completing the Master of Biological Sciences program at Duke, through the Bridges to Excellence Pathway program.

Jessica Goodwin

Jessica Goodwin

Jessica was raised in Georgia and received a Bachelor of Science in Pre-Medical Biological Sciences at Georgia State University. After completion of the DIRECT Cancer Fellowship Program, she aspires to reduce healthcare disparities and expand cancer research among pediatric populations. Jessica identifies as Black, and she received her Bachelor’s degree from a majority-minority university. Jessica’s primary mentor is Dr. Epplein. After completing the DIRECT fellowship, Jessica began medical school at Morehouse School of Medicine.